How to Create a Reactive Human in 10 Minutes or Less

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By Casey Lomonaco on 06/01/2009
Filed in – Fundamentals – Training Theory

“Be nice! Be nice!”

Recently, I was chatting in the classroom with a few of our more experienced students. They mentioned encountering the following scenario quite often while exercising their dogs at a local park:

Individual is walking dog on leash. Dog sees other dog, barks, leash goes tight. Owner pulls dog back on leash, saying, “Be nice! Be nice!” and fumbling with a tight leash until the distraction has passed.

A happy greeting

KPA students Jules Nye and Alyson
Zimmerman initiate a happy greeting.

Sounds like a recipe for reactivity, right? In the scenario above, the sight of another dog becomes a prediction of a negative experience—being corrected and jerked around on a leash. There is a good chance that this dog may develop a leash reactivity problem. The sequence then becomes:

Individual is walking dog on leash. Another dog handler team approaches. The dog sees the other team, anticipates an unpleasant consequence, and reacts in an attempt to the increase distance from the perceived threat, generally reacting until the distance from the trigger has gone to a sub-threshold level.
An experiment in creating reactivity

I noted a similar situation at our play group for dogs. One particular attendee (we’ll call her Rachel) always corrected her dog (we’ll call him Boo) when he barked. The barks were a solicitation to play, yet they were corrected each time they occurred.

If I had a nickel for every time I explained to Rachel why she should not correct his barking, it would have easily paid for my ClickerExpo registration and all the associated expenses!

tug greeting

The happy greeting of Jules and
Alyson interrupted by a tug.

Boo and I were frustrated; it seemed as though Rachel was just “not getting it,” so she was frustrated as well. I did not want to remove the dog from the group, because his continued attendance was vital to his socialization. My only option was to make his owner, Rachel, understand the reactivity problem so that her dog could continue to get the benefit from the group.

I decided to conduct an experiment, one that I hoped would illustrate for Rachel how her own behavior influenced Boo’s.
You don’t want to play tug?

One Sunday at group, I followed Rachel around the classroom (as she followed Boo). Every time she looked at someone, I lightly tugged on the fabric of her shirt. Every time she tried to talk to someone, same consequence.

It took less than ten minutes and exactly five shirt tugs until I’d created a reactive person.

After tug number five, Rachel’s head whipped around to look at me. “What are you doing? Why do you keep doing that to me?”
My only option was to make his owner understand the reactivity problem so that her dog could continue to get the benefit from the group.

Understandably, she was annoyed. Another ten minutes of this experiment might have led to some redirected aggression toward the individual applying the aversive—me! I explained to Rachel that the way she felt was likely how Boo felt about being corrected whenever he tried to approach other dogs for play.
The relationship between stimulus and consequence

Rachel liked the other people at play group. She was not a “reactive human” by nature; her frustrated response was conditioned by the application of aversives. All it took was a handful of shirt tugs (pun intended) to condition her that way. It did not take Rachel long at all to associate the consequence with the stimulus that predicted the consequence.

In Rachel’s case, the selected consequence was a very mild aversive, certainly less intense than the physical and verbal reprimands dogs frequently experience when they are on-leash in the presence of their canine peers. For Rachel, I had not paired the aversive with any verbal correction.

My hope was that this lesson would illustrate for Rachel the powerful effect a few seemingly light corrections could have on her perception of, and reaction to, a previously positive stimulus: socialization with other people. Prior to the shirt tugs, I had been a positive stimulus, but Rachel’s frustration with me when she was corrected was evident. Like Rachel, many reactive dogs have been conditioned by their owners, albeit inadvertently, to react aggressively.
Many reactive dogs have been conditioned by their owners, albeit inadvertently, to react aggressively.

If one of these dogs lives in your home, do not beat yourself up. No trainer is without her share of mistakes; mistakes are a part of learning. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn more and become a better dog handler, and every dog you ever meet will thank you for it!
Reactivity: on-leash vs. off-leash

In many circumstances, reactive behavior breaks down when the owner cannot administer a correction. Often, dogs that display “leash aggression” are able to play well with other dogs when provided with that opportunity in a safe, relatively large off-leash environment.

In the human example, if I had been across the room from Rachel, I would not have been able to correct her. If my ability to deliver the correction were taken away, she would likely feel more confident about interacting with her peers. Rachel would have been more focused on socialization and less concerned with where I was and when the next tug might be coming.
The experiment continues…toward success!

The experiment continued later in the class. I clicked Rachel for looking at other people, approaching other people, talking to other people. Reinforcements were varied: Tootsie Rolls or nickels.

After a few clicks, Rachel was feeling more positive about me, so I pulled her aside to talk for a moment. I asked her how she felt about the shirt tug experience compared to how she felt about being clicked for correct, socially appropriate behavior.

Rachel said that at first she was very frustrated with me, wondering why I was “nagging.” She said she felt silly being clicked later in class, but that she also felt much more relaxed and was having much more fun then.

After having been both corrected and reinforced, Rachel understood how her behavior, even slight tension on the leash or a change in breathing rhythm (sharp intake of breath), could change Boo’s perception of a situation.

We went on to talk about healthy play, calming signals, and stress behaviors. Increasing her knowledge of canine body language was critical to ensuring future training success.
Increasing her knowledge of canine body language was critical to ensuring future training success.
Re-trained now

Both Rachel and Boo are happy to have an enhanced understanding of each other, as evidenced by their continued progress in training and socialization. Now that she has “been” Boo, Rachel can modify her own behavior to set Boo up for success. I no longer see the tight leash or hear verbal corrections from Rachel.

Instead, I see a dog happily interacting with his canine friends during play session, a dog that willingly returns his focus to his handler for training activities. I see a dog-savvy handler who recognizes when her dog is engaging in healthy play, and when he’s beginning to show stress and needs a break from the action.

I see a dog/handler team set up for success; all is as it should be.

If this experiment helps you, as it helped Rachel and Boo, understand your reactive dog any better, I’m sure even Rachel would be pleased. That kind of growth and progress is worth the ten minutes when Rachel was annoyed me and my experiment in creating a reactive human.

Note: Thanks to Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) students Jules Nye (in white, www.sitstayandplay.com), and Alyson Zimmerman (in black, www.thefosterdogchronicles.com) for re-enacting the reactivce human experiment for our photos.
About the author Casey Lomonaco, KPA CTP, APDT, is the owner of Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training in Binghamton, NY. Casey offers private and group instruction in collaboration with Steve Benjamin, KPA faculty, CPDT, of Clicking with Canines, and Abbie Tamber, KPA CTP.

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